Czech scientists a step closer to success in the fight against Type 1 diabetes

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The Czech Republic has an impressive record in innovative medical research. For the last six years, laboratories around the world have successfully been offering a new form of treatment of diabetes that could lead to a life without the daily injections of insulin. In the experimental procedure called islet transplantation, healthy islets from the pancreas of deceased donors are transferred into diabetic patients. But it was not until a Czech team of scientists recently proposed to put small particles of iron into the islets that these could be monitored.

Dita Asiedu visited diabetes expert Frantisek Saudek at the Institute of Clinical and Experimental Medicine to find out more:

"Some of these islets may get lost immediately after the transplant and even if they don't there is still a danger of an immunologic reaction against these organs because it comes from another person. So, you urgently need to monitor the pancreatic islets. If you want them to continue functioning, you really need to see them and be able to follow them. And we have developed a method with which it is possible to label the pancreatic islets in vitro before the transplant, then transplant them, and after that detect them using magnetic resonance imagery."

Please explain to us what this new method is.

"We put the pancreatic islets into culture together with contrast agents that are made of small particles of iron. The iron is put into the islets and is then transplanted together with the islets. Then, through magnetic resonance imagery, you can see the islets as black spots that are dispersed in the liver."

What are the chances that the transplanted islets will react badly?

"We actually don't expect this to happen because they are just iron particles that can decompose in the body and the dose of iron is not that high. It's just the amount that you would have in your daily intake of food, for example. We decided to use a contrast agent that was already registered and licensed. So, this drug was already proven to be safe and acceptable for application in humans."

I believe you worked on this for a few years before you actually decided to test it on humans...

"I should say that we developed the experimental methods, which were developed in animals and proven for the first time that the islets can really be visualised. As we work together with a group from Geneva, who are performing islet transplantations regularly and are more advanced in this field than we are, they adopted our method and already tried it in humans. So, we need time now to show whether this method really is as useful as we believe."

The widespread use of islet transplantation is hindered by the small supply of islet cells from deceased donors. A 70 kg person, for example, needs about 1 million islets to be transplanted into his pancreas. Researchers around the world are busy finding alternative sources. The most feasible is a way of creating islet cells from other types of cells, to eventually just grow them in the laboratory.